I invite you to read Psalm 137 before reading this article. It is the genre of psalm that biblical scholars call an imprecatory psalm. The term means curse. Its author calls for God’s judgment on his enemy and wishes pain and destruction on Babylon. Scholars place the psalm during the Babylonian exile or just after the exile ended. The exiles were in distress. Their music had stopped: There on the poplars we hung our harps.
Their Babylonian captors were haunting them. Sing us one of the songs of Zion, they said. The response is as clear as it is despondent: How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?
The hill called Zion in Jerusalem was the location of the Jewish temple. It was the place where God had chosen to dwell. According to Psalm 132:16 it was the place where God’s people would gather and forever sing for joy. But three hundred years later the unthinkable had happened. Jerusalem was conquered and the temple was destroyed. There would be no more singing in Jerusalem and no more joy in Zion. And the exiles in Babylon did not feel like singing. They hung their harps on the poplars.
We can understand their emotion. It was difficult to sing a song of Zion in this foreign land. It is difficult to worship when you don’t like where you are, and when you are frustrated about where your pilgrimage of faith has taken you. It is hard to worship when you are in grief, and are waiting for justice.
People in exile are in a deplorable situation. We know of examples in our time. Today, millions of Palestinians live in exile. Millions of Rohingya people have been expelled from Myanmar and live in a foreign land. Countless Syrians now live in different countries around the world, because they were not safe in their own country, and consider all the Ukrainians who now live in exile.
However, the concept of exile can also be used symbolically. I was struck by the way in which it was employed by the Episcopalian Bishop John Shelby Spong (1931-2021). Spong is no longer with us, but his many books remain popular. Some were even bestsellers.
I recently read several of his books, including his 2001 autobiography, Here I Stand: My Struggle for a Christianity of Integrity, Love, and Equality. I found Spong a gifted and challenging writer, even though I did not agree with many of the things he wrote.
Growing up in the American South of the 1930s, Spong spent his childhood in an environment of racism, fundamentalism, sexism and homophobia. The church of his time was no exception.
Spong saw injustices that awakened his moral consciousness. Many ideas and practices in the church, he felt, were conflicting with the gospel of Christ. However, rather than becoming disillusioned with the church and dropping out, Spong decided to speak up. He did what he could to integrate women, blacks, gays, lesbians and other marginalized Christians into the churches where he served.
During his entire life Bishop Spong remained committed to his role as a shepherd to every member of the Christian flock. But as time went by, he struggled with many doctrines of his church. He fought against fundamentalism in and outside his church. But it was his view of Christians in exile that impressed me most.
Believers in exile
Spong wrote a lot about believers in exile. Increasingly, he saw himself as one of these exiles—as one of those who consider themselves Christian, but no longer feel at home in the traditional Christian structures; those who have problems with a number of doctrines and with particular moral standpoints; those who feel a prisoner in the ecclesiastical system.
Spong often quoted Psalm 137 and referred to the people from Judah who were in exile in Babylon. They remembered how it was in Zion, when they felt good and were happy. But now they feel different; they no longer feel at home where they are. Spong compared their situation with people in the church who no longer feel at ease in the church, and who can no longer believe everything the church says. One of the key statement in his autobiography gives the reason: “The heart cannot worship what the mind rejects” (310).
When the Babylonians asked the Judean exiles in their midst: “Sing one of your songs of Zion,” they replied: “How can we sing a song of Zion in a foreign land?” The songs of Zion are still in their hearts, but it has become more and more difficult to actually sing them. Their faith has not disappeared, but they find it difficult to talk about it, to explain what they actually believe; to pray and to worship as they did in the past.
Adventists in exile
Spong saw something that, I believe, is extremely relevant for Adventism. There is a growing number of Adventists who feel they are in exile. Very probably this includes many of the readers who frequent this website. Many of them will tell you, “I have left the church!” But often they add, “Actually, the church has left me.” That does not mean that they have lost all faith. And even those who confess they lost their faith, remember Zion quite vividly.
Many are in exile without having made a radical break with the church. They are in exile, because like Spong, they cannot continue to worship what the mind rejects. There are things they simply can no longer believe. Too many of their questions have remained unanswered.
Many of those exiles are still showing up in church, but they sense an ever greater inner distance. Some have moved their membership from a church where they could hardly breathe to a church that gave them the space they need. Others have found opportunities to connect with the church without physically attending any meetings. Various Zoom Sabbath schools have sprung up and there are many discussion groups online. Some say, “This is now my church!” We must not underrate the reality of this development and underestimate the number of people involved.
The issues that play a role for those who have gone into exile are very different. For some it is one particular point. It may be the ordination of female pastors, or the refusal of the church to welcome LGBTQ as full members. For others, it is cumulation of a number of things—often including one or more of the following:
- They can no longer believe in all of the 28 Fundamental Beliefs.
- They no longer feel that the things they learned about the Investigative Judgment and 1844 mean anything for their present life.
- They still believe that God is our Creator but cannot believe that creation happened only 6,000 or at most 10,000 years ago, in six 24-hour days.
- They no longer see other Christians as their enemies—as part of end-time Babylon.
- They do not think it is a good idea to distribute millions of copies of the Great Controversy from home to home.
- They are not anti-Catholic as their parents or grandparents may have been.
- They no longer see the writings of Ellen White as the last word on every issue.
Most of all, they do not read the Bible in the same way as they may have done twenty-five years ago. They regret to see how many segments of the church have become more fundamentalist—taking the Bible ever more literally, even where that clearly is not appropriate.
Whether these objections to traditional Adventist teachings are right or wrong is not my point. My point is: this is how many experience their faith. Moreover, they are not just looking for what is true, but for what has meaning. Perhaps it boils down to this: Those who are in exile want to see a stronger connection between what they believe and life in the 21st century.
What difference does it make in 2024 that we believe everything the church has told us to believe? Bishop Spong once said, “If the Episcopal Church can’t stand a challenge within its own ranks, then it is not a church I would want to be a member of.” I ask myself, “What about being and remaining a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church? Can my church stand the challenge of the members who ask questions? I have been alarmed—and many with me—when I heard some of our leaders repeatedly argue that those who do not believe in the traditional interpretation of all 28 Fundamental Beliefs should leave the church. Statements like that push more and more members into exile.
What more is there to say? Must we just accept the above analysis as a fact of life? Should we just say, “It is what it is?” Or is there hope? Can things be turned around? I am convinced they must be tuned around if the church is to have a future. I am sure of two things:
First, we must help our brothers and sisters who are in exile to survive their exile. We must help them to retrieve their harp from the poplars and once again sing their songs of Zion, even when they currently are at a distance from the church.
Second, we must do what we can to encourage them to return from their exile and rejoin us in enriching our faith community
Surviving in exile
Perhaps the most relevant text that underscores this aspect is the letter the prophet Jeremiah wrote to the exiles in Babylon. It is found in Jeremiah 29. The prophet emphasizes two things.
While you are in exile—get on with your life. Build houses and plant gardens. Have a family. Have children and grandchildren. Help in building the community around you. Also, pray for Babylon, that it may have peace and may prosper. By the way, that is also very proper advice for Seventh-day Adventists. Some in our church talk a lot about Babylon. However, if we must say something about Babylon, then let’s also pray for it, rather than just curse it and condemn it.
Beware of false prophets. Do not listen to them but remain focused on what you learned in Zion. This is also applicable to our Adventist brothers and sisters in exile. We must encourage them: Do get on with your life. Enjoy it. Be a productive member of your community, of society. But be very selective in choosing the spiritual voices you listen to. Remain connected with the values you grew up with.
We can help brothers and sisters in exile by remaining in contact with them; by encouraging them to get on with their lives. We can help them to listen to the kind of spiritual voices and messages that build on the foundation they have. We can help them by pointing to events, to books, magazines and blogs, and to online groups that can help them to spiritually survive. We can help them to at least hum the songs of Zion.
Returning to Zion
Judah went into Babylonian captivity but many eventually returned to Jerusalem. The people who returned faced many challenges. It was not a journey from hell to heaven. For many it rather seemed to be the other way round—from relative comfort in Babylon to the challenges of a new start; it meant a rough beginning—of rebuilding the walls of the city and restoring the temple.
Returning to the church and helping to strengthen the church, after having been in exile, can be accompanied by a very mixed bag of emotions. It can bring joy and the sense of having come home again. But there can also be a process of numerous disappointments and setbacks. We must do what we can to encourage our brothers and sisters to return from their exile. However, we cannot promise them that the church is now totally different from the church they left—often many years ago.
But we, who have stayed, are also longing for change;
we, also at times felt abandoned by our church;
we also had our doubts and questions.
We need the help of returning exiles
in building, rebuilding and reforming the church;
in bringing the church into the 21st century.
Together we must create the kind of environment
where it is all right to have questions;
where it is all right to think, and to connect our faith with the state of modern science;
where our personal stewardship and discipleship is Bible-based,
but put in practice by following individual choices,
informed by our culture and personal history;
where we are not forced to think alike about all doctrines;
where we can sing the songs of Zion with our harps, but also with our organs, trumpets and drums.
How can we sing the songs of Zion as Seventh-day Adventists in 2024?
We can hum them while we are in exile, but exile can at most be a temporary state.
Let those who left, return, and let’s together reclaim the church, if the church has left us.
And let’s together be the choir with the many different voices that sings the songs of Zion.